I don’t move my chair while watching a play. I don’t tend to wrestle with feelings of guilt watching a performance unfold. But I did both while watching “An Enemy of the People” at the American University in Cairo’s Oriental Hall on October 12.
Henrik Ibsen’s five-act play has been transformed by director Nora Amin and LaMusica Independent Theatre Group into a one-act musical drama with a live rock band.
In the play, Thomas Stockmann finds out that the water in the town’s baths, said to have great medicinal value, has been contaminated. Tourism and prosperity rest on the baths, and significant financial investment has been made in them. With no inkling of the turmoil that he was about to incite, Thomas sends his report on the problem, including proposals for costly solutions, to the mayor.
To his shock, Thomas (Ibrahim Ghareeb) is accused of wanting to destroy his country. Even his brother the mayor is against him. He calls a town meeting to explain why the baths must close. His allies, who have given Thomas their support in private, turn against him, as do the townspeople. Thomas becomes increasingly radicalized, his faith in the system dissipating as those in power and respected community members vilify him. The confrontation, which Ibsen put in the fourth act, is the production’s core, with earlier parts of the story occurring in flashbacks.
Amin says the production has been adapted based on each venue it was performed in since it began touring the country in January. But one element that remains consistent are actors scattered throughout the audience taunting Thomas and cheering his detractors.
The audience is not simply watching a play; we become unwitting attendees at a public meeting. Our silence is read as approval, as Thomas and his wife appeal to the crowd to speak up for them. As Amin says, “Your silence becomes part of the play.”
As she introduces the show, Amin says, “If you want to clap, object, shout out, please do.” Whether or not we take up the invitation, we have been roped in. We are spect-actors — both spectators and actors — to use a term coined by AugustoBoal, who developed the notion of the theater of the oppressed in which Amin’s work is steeped.
Amin plays Catherine, Thomas’ wife; she looks at those gathered imploringly, hoping someone, anyone, will stand up for her husband. But last week, a few in the front row applauded Thomas’s detractors instead.
Amin has learned to read the audience.
“As Catherine, I look at them, and I see hired men paid to applaud. As the director, I know they are not, and I see that later they do not clap. They may not speak out, but a change has taken place,” she says.
The play does its work by affecting feelings, not thoughts, she says. The way in which it has been adapted and crafted is informed by this notion. In the original script, we know from the start that Horster is double-crossing Thomas; but in Amin’s version, we only find out as it is happening.
“If we know from the start, we won’t be surprised. But it is the feeling of surprise and betrayal that triggers the reaction,” she explains.
The experience is visceral. This physicality is created in no small part by the music, performed by Nader Samy on lead guitar, Tamer Essam on drums, Ahmed Montasser on guitar and Bassem Abu Arab on the bass. The music heightens emotions, adds intensity and somehow gives the characters depth. Amin explains that she chose rock music as the score “because I wanted music that reflected the roughness of the soundscape of the past two years.”
“The music is not intended as an accompaniment or soundtrack, but is an essential part of the play,” she adds. The musicians, who had not worked together previously, composed the music in workshops with Amin and the actors.
“The best compliment I receive from people who have watched the show is not that the music was great, but that they forget it was there. The music becomes essential — it is one of the actors,” Essam says.
The actors function as the vocalists, he suggests. At one point, the music reaches a climax parallel to Thomas. He holds the microphone, his face sweaty, voice impassioned, eyes lit up. It is indeed as if he is the lead singer of a band as he delivers his plea to the gathered townspeople.
The physicality of both the performance and the experience of watching it is fitting for a troupe that has made its name in experimental production with a significant physical element.
Amin, who founded LaMusica in 2000, is a performer, writer and theater director whose initial entry into the arts was dance. Amin’s award-winning work also encompasses writing (both fiction and publications on the transformative role of theater) and training in the methodology of the theater of the oppressed.
The feelings of crisis during the past two years in Egypt — desire for change, disappointment, conspiracy, the clamor of group dynamics — are all there in “An Enemy of the People.” More than that, it is as if the play were written just last week, and specifically for Egypt.
The word Amin uses is “reenacts.” The play reenacts moments of violent political and social conflict, not only representing them, but inviting us to reenact our own role in such moments.
Initially conceived at the end of 2012 during the rule of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi, the production has evolved along with the political context. Amin makes continual changes and tweaks, and the troupe frequently return to rehearsals. She thinks this helps keep the performances fresh.
Adapted from a classical Arabic translation to colloquial Egyptian, Amin says “translation is ongoing,” a twist on the well-used phrase “the revolution is ongoing.”
While there are clear principles flowing through the work — the importance of knowledge and of speaking truth to power, for instance — the point is not to convey a message, but elicit an experience. “Everyone brings something different,” Amin says. “Someone with more conservative politics may focus on the question of conspiracy if that is what they feel defines this current moment, and that’s ok — everyone is on a different journey.”
In a sense, “Enemy of the People” is fundamentally about the conflict between the individual and the group, the lone voice of truth speaking against the majority. This theme is somewhat tiresome in that it fetishizes the autonomous individual, implicitly implying that all that is needed for social change to occur is a brave individual, while discounting the importance of the collective. But this is undercut by the form of Amin’s “Enemy of the People” — because the spect-actors become complicit in the action and are not let off the hook, as we often are by stories of brave and exceptional individuals.
In January, critic Nehad Selaiha wrote a review in Al-Ahram Weekly of the production, linking its critique of the trappings of democracy to contemporary Egyptian reality — and specifically Brotherhood rule. Watching the play again after Morsi’s ouster, she wrote in September that “changing contexts of reception can influence the interpretation of the same performance and change its meaning and immediate message.”
Indeed, much of the play’s detail can be linked to Egypt today — the rule of a military-mandated interim presidency that seems determined to wipe out the Brotherhood and all other opposition with increasing violence (this is my reading, not Selaiha’s). Perhaps the issue is less whether the play’s details correspond to the political context in which we find ourselves, and more to the experience we have watching it — which is also shaped by the shifting political context.
It is difficult to explain the viscerality of the experience, or why it matters. But I can at least point to two moments in which my own reactions surprised me.
After failing to answer pleas from Thomas and his wife, I found myself clapping for him at one point. The sound of my hands surprised me. I was clapping not when he was weak, but when he was defiant. Many of us did. This led me to realize that, whatever I think of my political principles and commitment to truth, I reacted when it was easy to do so.
And at the end of the play, four men repeatedly sang the accusation “enemy of the people.” It was like an incantation — “‘adu al-sha’ab, ‘adu al-sha’ab, ‘adu al-sha’ab” — and with the music, a pretty catchy one (I can’t help but think of the catchiness of the currently omnipresent fawning ode to the military, “Tislam al-ayadi”). It went on and on, and I started tapping my foot on the ground. The physical reminder of how easy it is to go along with what is catchy and contagious is discomfiting, and difficult to forget, though I might like to.
“Enemy of the People” will next be performed at 100copies on October 30 and continue touring nationally until the end of the year.